Do you have a horse that is not very confident riding out alone? If so, then this story about Rosie may be of interest to you. It’s about how I used clicker training to build her confidence and give her a way to communicate with me so we could ride out together.
My main riding horse is my mare Rosie. We do a lot of ring work, but I also like to ride out in the fields and woods around our house. I think it’s good to have some variety and for her to learn to be ridden in different places.
When she was young, I started riding her out of the ring by slowly adding new areas to our normal routine. I often introduced these areas by hand walking her in them a few times before riding there. On our property it’s pretty easy to set up larger and larger “loops” so I started by riding down to the house from the barn, and then down and around the house (out of sight of the barn) and then around the house and into the front field. I mixed things up a bit until she was comfortable being ridden around on our property in lots of different ways. I say “comfortable,” but of course, there was some variation, depending upon what was going on, the weather, her mood etc.
However, for the most part, I felt she was relaxed and interested being out and about. I wanted riding out of the ring to be a positive experience so I incorporated some familiar exercises or behaviors like going to a cone or mat, putting out buckets with treats, and allowing her to stop and graze. Sometimes I could allow her to choose which way we would go. When I could, I rode with another horse so she had company, and on those rides we would often go a little farther than normal. It’s great for young horses to go out in company as they have the more experienced horses for support and as role models.
I continued to ride her out in the fields and trails near my house for a few years, but one summer she was badly frightened by a group of mountain bikers and after that she became very anxious on the trails. She has always had the habit of stopping and freezing when something catches her attention and now she did this for longer periods of time and also started spooking more. After a while, it became clear to me that I needed to rebuild her confidence and I stopped riding her out of the ring because neither of us was enjoying it. I did continue to ride her in the yard around my house, but that was the farthest we went.
After about 6 months, I decided to try again. That was 3 or 4 years ago and while we have not gotten back to riding out as much as we did at one point, we have worked out a way that she can be ridden out and we can both have a nice ride. The first step was to go back and start again from scratch, paying more attention to her level of tension and expanding her comfort zone much more slowly. I also made a few other changes and one was that I started riding with a target stick. I am sure there are lots of ways to use a target stick while riding but I thought I would share how I use it because it ended up being such a nice way for her to communicate with me.
I started carrying a target stick because I wanted to be able to cue a well-known behavior while riding, one that she could do even if she was a little stressed and one that was not dependent upon location, or that required me to put objects out ahead of time. Carrying a target stick seemed like a good idea because she loves targeting, it’s easy to do from the saddle, and I can present the cue and she can touch it when she is ready.
The last point is important because it means I don’t have to worry about what to do if she doesn’t respond to the cue. I’m always a little cautious about using a cued behavior in a situation where an animal is distracted or upset. I don’t want to use the cue if the animal is not likely to respond, but sometimes giving a cue reminds the animal that there are other options and can be an important step in teaching the animal that there are alternative behaviors. With the target stick, I can present it and Rosie can respond when she is ready. I didn’t realize it when I started using the target stick, but giving her this ability to tell me when she was ready was probably the most important thing I could have done for her.
Just riding around my property, her big issues were that she would stop and freeze or walk very slowly. When I started riding with the target stick, I started out by just having her stop and touch the target at various times so she knew I was carrying it and that this was a behavior she could do while I was riding. My initial thought was that I would use it to get her attention when she froze and looked at things.
But I soon found that if asked for her to touch the target before she was ready, she would ignore it, or she would touch it and then snatch her head away or refuse to take the treat. It was better to wait until she oriented back toward me a little bit or to present it so she could see it out of the corner of her eye, so she knew it was there, but it was more of a suggestion than a request.
What this means is that when she stops and looks at something, she can tell me when she is ready to go forward by touching the target stick. She touches the target, I click and treat, and then she walks forward or I cue forward. I’d like to say that this was all planned out in advance, but the reality is that this is what evolved and worked for us. One reason I wanted to share how we use the target stick is to show that sometimes training is about starting with an idea and seeing where it takes you. You don’t always have to have all the answers when you get started.
This use of targeting sounds simple, but along the way I did have to make some rules. One is that touching the target stick is always followed by going forward. This means I do not ask her for, or allow her to do, multiple touches. She touches it once and then she either walks off on her own, responds to my cue to walk off, or we stand and wait until she’s ready to walk forward. This doesn’t mean she has to walk far. In the beginning, I was happy with one step and would click for it. Then we might do a few steps before I clicked. Usually once she was past the “scary spot,” she would go back to walking nicely for longer periods. Now that we have been doing this for a while, she usually walks off nicely after her target touch and treat.
Do I ever break this rule? Yes, of course. Sometimes she seems ok and will target, but then something else happens (the bush wiggles) and she has to look again. So I try to be aware of times when she is still concerned and compromise a bit. So there is definitely a component of reading her body language, but in general, I have found it works better if she does move forward between target touches. In some cases, I do end up waiting until she is ready to walk off instead of cueing it, but I don’t offer the target again until she has moved at least a step or two.
I also discovered that she sometimes associates targeting with specific locations. So if something startles her in one location on our ride, she will want to stop and target the next time she approaches that spot, even if there is nothing there. I don’t really have a problem with doing this once or twice, but I will sometimes ask her to go a little farther if she stops for no obvious reason and it’s a location where she has stopped before. Usually once she realizes that the location is not a cue to target, she’s fine the next time.
This summer we had some really nice rides out in the fields near my house. She walked along at a nice pace and seemed to enjoy being out and seeing what was going on. I also noticed that she wanted to stop and graze at more places along the way, which is something she doesn’t do when she is anxious. I think that with time she will become even more confident and we will be able to go for longer rides again. But even if we don’t, I’m happy that we now have more options for what to do when it’s a nice day and we want to go riding.
About the picture: I don’t have a picture of her touching her target stick on the trail so I have used one of her meeting the Easter Bunny. Teaching horses to target novel objects is another way to build confidence and was something I did with her when she was younger and we were walking around exploring new areas.